In my recent post on How to spot dodgy research about the public sector I mentioned publicity about potential procurement savings published by a company called Opera Solutions (OS) “to which I shall probably return”.  Well this is it – the return.

I’m uncharacteristically cross with myself because I’ve established a modest track record in commenting on stuff like this (see the footnote to the post mentioned above) but this is one I missed first time round.  Still, a reprise of what others have already said and a few additional comments are not out of order.

The first hit today on Google about this so-called “research” takes you to a press notice by the UK government department of communities and local government (DCLG) back on 17 June.  Headlined Shining a light on council spending could save up to £450 per household it’s worth quoting

…cutting edge analysis of council spending data by procurement experts Opera Solutions has revealed that greater transparency coupled with improved analysis is the key to unlocking massive savings by driving down costs…The report argues that Local Government, by adopting new processes and making better use of spending analysis, could replicate these kind of savings across a wide range of back office functions, with no impact on quality of service and reduce spending by up to £10 billion a year. 

And secretary of state Eric Pickles added approvingly

“Let there be no doubt whatsoever – today’s figures show that there is significant scope for councils to make taxpayers’ money work even harder. We’ve always said that sunlight is the best disinfectant, and the availability of financial data has helped identify numerous ways that councils can reduce expenditure while offering the same or better services to residents”

The nature of Opera Solutions’ cutting edge analysis was exposed by Ben Goldacre in The Guardian newspaper.  He said

Every now and then, the government will push a report that’s so assinine, and so thin, you have to check it’s not a spoof.

Goldacre went on to explain

The meat of it, the analysis, is presented in a single three-line table. Opera took the recently released local government spending data for three councils, and decided how much it reckoned could be saved by bulk purchasing.

[Opera Solutions] did its estimates on three areas: for energy bills (a £7m spend), and solicitors fees (£6m), it thought councils could save just 10%. The third category – mobile phone bills – were tiny in comparison (just £600,000) but here, and here alone, Opera reckons councils can save 20%, by getting people on better tariffs.

He then did a hatchet job on the whole, my word, sham.  I won’t steal his thunder but click through and read what he says.  It exemplifies precisely the ten infallible signs of dodgy research I posted recently.

Predictably, the Daily Mail had already waded in uncritically to condemn the alleged waste by “clueless councils”.  But others, like the PublicNet web site, acknowledged Opera Solutions’ work wasn’t all it seemed.  They admitted

Publicnet is among a number of media organisations that published this story in good faith.

And on the WhatDoTheyKnow web site you can find a number of items relating to Freedom of Information requests to the DCLG from one Edward Rudolf.  The DCLG seem to be finding excuses to not answer his questions but he has a keenly forensic approach to the subject and you can sense he’s not going to give up.  I don’t know him but more power to his elbow.

I’m not sure what I can add to all this but here are a few tit bits.

  • For a company seeking publicity about their work, Opera Solutions are remarkably coy about letting people see their “research”.  On their web site you’ll find you have to give your contact details to access what they optimistically call one of their White Papers.  Ironic in light of  Eric Pickles’ statement that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.  Somehow Ben Goldacre managed to open up access to the report on the OS web site so despite their coyness you can find the whole six page magnum opus here (but don’t hold your breath).
  • Also of passing interest on the OS web site is their characterisation of this PR-dressed-up-as-research as “Prepared for the Government of the United Kingdom”.  Sounds impressive doesn’t it?  I’ve prepared many things for the Government of the United Kingdom.  They never asked for them and, unlike the OS effort, I doubt if they took any notice of them.  Let’s hope Edward Rudolf’s FOI requests tease out whether this work was commissioned or unsolicited.
  • A general lesson for all of us from this unfinished saga is a reminder of how major parts of the media publish PR guff as news without engaging their brains to analyse the latest press release that suits their prejudices or fills a last minute space.

As I’ve said before, the sadness of this sort of stuff is that mud sticks.  Once again people without full access to the facts will find yet another reason to believe the public sector in general and local government in particular needs a good shaking up.

PS – this doesn’t purport to tell the whole story on this subject.  There is a lot more out there in cyberspace including a critique by local government lawyers of the OS publication, as well as a small admission by them that their claimed savings for local government were “extrapolated” [and some]

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